Interview with Marie-Claude L’Homme

by Kara Warburton

Marie-Claude L'HommeI recently had the privilege of interviewing Marie-Claude L’Homme, a professor at the Université de Montréal and a widely-published scholar in the field of terminology. Marie-Claude is very well known in terminology, lexicography and related fields. She is an Editor of the premier academic journal, Terminology, as well as of the series of monographs, Terminology and Lexicography Research and Practice. She has written major monographs as well as countless journal articles and conference papers. Her main research interest is in the area of lexical semantics applied to terminology. She is head of the Observatoire de linguistique Sens-Text (OLST) – a research group in the Meaning-Text Theory at the Université de Montréal.

For more insight into her background, visit her Web site: http://www.ling.umontreal.ca/lhomme/


AILIA is a language industry association. Before we begin to focus on terminology in this interview, I'd like to ask how you perceive yourself as a "language industry professional" in this broader sense.

Marie-Claude:  Well I don’t know whether university professors qualify as “language industry professionals” strictly speaking. But since I’ve been teaching and training future translators and terminologists for 15 years, I guess my main contribution to the industry is in training. As a teacher, I try to take into account two things: (1) the recent developments in the field, and this is where my research contributes; and (2) the needs expressed by the industry. I strive to stay informed about industry needs by networking with practicing terminologists, and attending conferences, workshops and other industry fora. I also have personal colleagues who are terminologists in the private sector. The Joint Committee on Terminology in Canada (JCTC - http://www.cmtc-termino.org) is a great resource in this respect. It brings together people from different sectors to discuss their needs. It is very important for terminologists in academia and industry to maintain a continuous dialog so that training programs are adapted to the needs of employers.


What sector or aspect of the language industry do you identify yourself with most closely? What is your individual contribution to the language industry?

M-C: I think there are two things, as I said earlier: training and development, given my two roles at the university as teacher and researcher. We offer degrees at BA, MA, and PhD levels and students can specialize in terminology at the MA and PhD levels. Indeed, most students who develop an interest in terminology do so at the graduate level. On the research side, I am working on new encoding models for lexicographical and terminological data. I’m very interested in the use of computer applications in terminology and lexicography work. I think that using innovative lexico-semantic theories and methods can help to develop specialized dictionaries that are useful to anyone, not just to specialists or linguists. Through our research group, the OLST, we collaborate with computational linguists, information scientists, computer scientists, and translation and terminology researchers both from Canada and abroad. This research group is a reflection of what terminology has become – multidisciplinary and increasingly computational. The OLST also gives students the unique opportunity to work as research assistants with international experts.

Tell me about what you teach as a professor at the Université de Montréal.   

M-C: I still teach the traditional theory of terminology (known as the General Theory) as a foundation, but I also introduce new theories and approaches that have emerged in response to recent criticisms of that theory. Of course I also incorporate technology such as for computer-assisted translation and terminology work.  At the BA level, we train students for the workplace, such as for the Office de la langue française or the Translation bureau,so we need to focus on the approaches that are used in those settings. Later on, at the MA and PhD level, we give more attention to critical examination of theories, and students will undertake research for specific projects.


Why did you choose a career in academia, rather than in the private sector, or in government?

M-C: I actually started out my career in the private sector, at a translation technology company in New Brunswick, right after my PhD. I was working in the technology area, improving machine translation outputs that translators had to post edit. I had to develop terminology resources for the system, but also translation rules. It was extremely interesting and cutting-edge work. But after a while, I missed teaching and especially, I missed conducting research. When a position became available at the Université de Montréal, I applied and, well, I’ve been here ever since.


How amazing that you were working in such a highly technical area 20 years ago, before translation memory even existed! What I find even more interesting is that the Université de Montréal also recognized the value of technical expertise 20 years ago and “snatched you up” so to speak. How important is terminology management in the language industry? Do you think it is getting the recognition it deserves?

M-C: Terminology is more than just updating a termbase or working for a translation service, at least nowadays. Terminologists can contribute expertise to projects in lexicography, information science, classification and indexing, content management, and other areas. Their contributions in these areas can increase quality, improve productivity, and save time. Terminology is multidisciplinary. As a discipline and a profession, it has changed a lot in the past decades. Before, it was confined to translation and language planning. Today it is much broader.


Where is terminology as a discipline going in the future? In what directions should we expect the most innovation, the most change?

M-C: As I said, terminology has drastically changed in the past two decades, largely due to the use of computers and the development of new methodologies. Today we use new empirical methods for terminology research involving the study of large corpora. The corpora, and the resulting terminology, now have to be encoded and highly structured. We also have to be versatile to accommodate related disciplines: lexicography, information science, linguistics. The past focus on translation is today becoming a smaller part of our concern in the field of terminology. For instance, our research encompasses lexical semantics, knowledge engineering, conceptual relations, corpus-building – things that I learned only partially as a student. Even the notion of what is a “term” has changed. Nowadays we are more interested in how a term is instantiated in text than what position it occupies in a fixed conceptual system (or we consider the two viewpoints simultaneously).


What kind of person is well suited to becoming a terminologist? What kind of aptitudes and skills are important?

M-C: It goes without saying that terminologists have to be very comfortable with computers – in fact I think technology has affected terminology work in a more profound way than it has affected translation work. Terminologists have to be versatile as they typically have to participate in different kinds of projects, often in different subject fields. They also have to be curious, and good problem solvers. They need to have a good sense of detail, to be able to make fine-grained distinctions often at abstract levels. Terminology as a profession is constantly changing so terminologists need to thrive on learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge, and adapt easily to new realities.


Do you have any advice to give to future aspiring terminologists?

M-C: I would recommend that they look for a training program that covers theoretical and methodological aspects. Lexical semantics, computer applications, encoding standards and markup languages, knowledge modeling, corpus linguistics – these are all areas that can come into play. I would encourage students to take courses in these areas, to explore these fields. Try to get practical experience as soon as possible.  For instance, the Université de Montréal offers internships in translation and terminology as part of the BA and MA degrees.


If I could add a comment here, I notice that terminology training is virtually exclusively offered within the framework of translation studies. Given your observation that the scope of terminology work is expanding to include areas such as information management, and that there is an increasing dependency on technology, can we characterize the terminologist of tomorrow as being something between a linguist and a technologist, rather than a “translator who has taken a few terminology courses”?
In my previous work at IBM, for instance, due to a lack of candidates with specific training in terminology, we occasionally ended up filling terminologist positions with people who had technical skills and language skills but no background in terminology at all, and maybe not even a second language. While it took some time to train these people in the fundamentals of terminology, they brought analytical and computing skills that proved essential to our terminology program. For instance, someone with a degree in Computer Science and a degree in Philosophy may be able to implement conceptual relations in a terminology management system better than someone who has studied only translation. I don’t question the value of having a translation background in terminology, but what about these other aspects?

M.-C: Indeed, it is true that terminology is taught in translation programs, and this is mostly due to its historical ties to translation. But there are increasing needs for multidisciplinary approaches and for advanced computing skills. This is why we encourage our students to take courses in other departments, such as Information Science. In fact, the JCTC is also concerned about this problem and is seeking ways to promote terminology as an independent profession. Perhaps this can be achieved by rethinking the training of future terminologists.


The interview ended with Marie-Claude and I both laughing that, “terminology may still be considered an exotic vocation, but in fact it is possible to get a job and make a respectful living as a terminologist!” If you have the right aptitudes to be a terminologist, it can be a highly rewarding career.


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